Something the holidays evoke are memories—the sound of sleigh bells, the sight of Christmas lights and chestnuts roasting on the open fire.
Let’s face it, a lot of our memories are of things long gone. One of my favorites is the meal after ‘Midnight Mass’ on Christmas morning that featured ‘tourtiere,’ a French Canadian pork pie. The secret of my mother’s tourtiere was passed down from ‘ma tante’ Gorgienne and I still cherish the time-worn recipe card that I inherited. I can duplicate the spices and the ‘spirit’ of this holiday favorite, but I can’t duplicate the pork; it is, literally, a different animal.
So, what changed and why? In a nutshell, the raising of pork was dragged through the mud into the age of modern farming. The ‘hog,’ long a symbol of filth and excess, was moved inside and cleaned up. It was now bred to be lean instead of fat and over a generation the animal still looked like a pig, but it just did not taste like it did before. When a new generation of farmers and consumers realized what had happened, it was too late. ‘Ma tante’ Georgienne’s sweet swine was gone, replaced by ‘the other white meat.’
This is not necessarily bad; it is just change. As a chef it presents a unique challenge: how does one replace the flavor missing in meat that is now much more consistent and much leaner?
Cooking is all about flavor. You are either preserving flavor inherent in an ingredient or transforming it through technique and the introduction of additional ingredients. So let’s talk about our tourtiere. When ‘ma tante’ made this pie 100 years ago, she was dealing with runaway fat and runaway flavor. She dealt with the fat by adding either crackers or potatoes, essentially neutral ingredients. They acted as a sponge for the fat and the excess ‘flavor,’ and did their job. So we can compensate by adding extra butter to the mashed potatoes. (My auntie’s was the only recipe I have see that used crackers, so I’m going with the mashed potatoes.)
Onions are an ingredient I love talking about. They are a flavor treasure trove, just waiting to be released. Sautee (steam) them with the meat and they are a smooth, sweet flavor enhancement. Caramelize them on their own and you ratchet that flavor profile up a notch, going from sweet to sassy! By increasing the onion content and backing off on the potatoes you are infusing flavor. But what to do about the fat …
I am not going to talk about the benefits of eating less fat, as they are well documented. However, when it comes to cooking, there is an old adage that ‘fat is where the flavor is.’ So it’s 2015, can we find a happy medium? Sure, less fat— but how do we get that tourtiere to taste like Aunties’?
On any given Sunday morning you will probably find me cooking bacon to go with my eggs. The by-product of this operation is always a bunch of rendered bacon fat. I save it. This, too, is a remnant of my French Canadian background. This bacon fat is thus available to add back into meat dishes that start with the super lean cuts we have today, including, but not limited to, my tourtiere. Bacon fat is what I sautee the onions in and add to pork to give it a little bit of that old 20th Century feel. Instead of adding more water to the mix, try deglazing with some hard cider or a little of whatever white wine you have handy. Then hit the mixture with a dash of your favorite balsamic vinegar; flavor man, flavor!
A note on the recipes: I am including a great crust recipe. Many of the recipes I looked at merely said ‘two prepared crusts,’ so do what you must. I cut the potatoes back to 1 ½ cups and add in at least ¼ cup rendered bacon fat.
Want resources? Here are a couple of links to modern local pork.
Recipe: Memere Rousseau’s Tourtiere (Meat Pie)
From Yankee Magazine
This traditional recipe for Tourtiere — meat pie — has a crust so light that it melts in your mouth and can be eaten piping hot from the oven or cold from the refrigerator.
2 pounds ground pork
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups water
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves (or more to taste) 3 cups mashed potatoes
1 tablespoon milk
In a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, combine pork, onion, salt, and water. Simmer gently, stirring often, until all liquid evaporates, about 4 hours. Stir in spices. Add potatoes and beat well to combine thoroughly. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Line a pie plate with one crust. Spoon in pork/potato mixture. Add top crust and flute the edges. Brush the top with milk and prick with a fork. Bake 30 minutes.
4 cups flour, plus extra for work surface
2 teaspoons salt
1-3/4 cups shortening
1 large egg, lightly beaten 1 tablespoon vinegar
1/2 cup ice water
In a large bowl, combine flour and salt. Cut shortening in, until pieces are about the size of a pea. Add egg, vinegar, and ice water. Work mixture into a soft, cohesive dough ball. Divide in half, and put one half aside for another pie (or freeze). Cut other dough mass in half. On a work surface dusted with flour, roll out bottom and top crusts. Yield: 2 two-crust pies